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With Gov. Jim McGreevey brandishing a stunningly low, upside-down approval rating of 35%-52% in a September Quinnipiac poll, Republicans hoped to regain their State Senate majority and end two years of shared control after the 2001 election left them split at 20-20.
The greatest obstacle to a GOP Senate majority were the top two Republicans in the Senate: Co-Senate President John Bennett (R-Little Silver) and Co-Majority Leader Anthony R. Bucco (R-Boonton) Both battling ethics issues in bids for re-election in districts that were heavily favorable to Republicans.
Bennett faced allegations that he over-billed municipalities for legal work he provided. Bucco and the state were being sued for sexual harassment after his former chief of staff claimed that he required her to engage in a sexual relationship as a condition of her employment.
Bennett and Bucco, both theoretically in safe seats, were responsible for raising money for other Republican candidates. Their own ethical issues forced them to spend a combined $1.2 million – a lot of money fifteen years ago — to protect their seats.
Throughout the 2003 campaign, Bennett faced a seemingly daily barrage of media attention – mostly from the local Asbury Park Press newspaper – attacking Bennett’s ethics.
Held to 59% in the Republican primary, Bennett then lost the general election to Democrat Ellen Karcher by 4,574 votes. His 42.5% of the vote reflected in a drop of 16 percentage points from his 2001 total.
Bennett became the first sitting Senate President to lose his own seat in at least 100 years.
Had Bennett, now the Woodbridge township administrator, left the Senate amidst the growing scandal, most observers think the Republicans would have easily held the seat. Instead, they lost two Assembly seats as well.
Five weeks after he won a second term in 2001, Bucco found himself in the middle of a sexual harassment scandal. His former legislative aide alleged that her job on Bucco’s Senate staff required that she engage in a sexual relationship with him. The aide claimed that Bucco’s wife learned of the affair and demanded that she be fired from his staff, and from a job at the Lake Hopatcong Regional Planning Board – a post she said Bucco helped her get.
A harassment suit was filed in federal court against Bucco and the New Jersey Senate; Bucco counter-sued his ex-staffer.
In a different era, the allegations didn’t stop Senate Republicans from elevating Bucco from Assistant Majority Leader to Co-Republican Majority Leader. He was re-elected in 2003 by a 55%-45% margin — a 10.4% drop from his 2001 re-election percentage — despite documents produced by Blair MacInnes, his Democratic opponent, showing that the state was paying legal fees related to the Bucco scandal.
The problem for Republicans was that Bennett and Bucco had diverted so much money to their own campaigns that other Republicans were left underfunded.
State Sen. George Geist (R-Gloucester Township) lost his seat by just 63 votes to Democrat Fred Madden. Democrats had spent over $2 million to beat Geist; at the time, many Republicans believed that money that was spent defending Bennett and Bucco would have saved the 4th district Senate seat.
Had Geist been re-elected, there would have been a Republican with senatorial courtesy in Camden County.
Republicans also fell short in two hotly contested Senate races in Bergen County: the 36th, where recently-appointed State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) was facing former nine-term Assemblyman John Kelly (R-Nutley); and in the 38th, where five-term Assemblywoman Rose Marie Heck (R-Hasbrouck Heights) was challenging State Sen. Joseph Coniglio (D-Paramus).
The loss of the Bennett and Geist seats gave Democrats a 22-18 majority in the Senate.
Not only did the GOP blow control – either absolute or shared – but there were unintended consequences as well.
When Gov. James E. McGreevey resigned in 2004, a Republican might have been next in line to succeed to the governorship.